Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Wrongful Convictions in Illinois  

In 2018, Illinois had the highest number of wrongful convictions vacated than any other state in the nation.  In fact, of the 151 exonerations that occurred, 49 took place in Illinois.  This equals roughly one-third of all exonerations in 2018.  These statistics were recorded by the National Registry of Exonerations, which is a collaborative effort between Michigan State University, University of Michigan, and the University of California Irvine.  Many wrongful convictions are the result of corrupt police planting evidence as well as using coercive tactics to elicit false confessions (CST).  Police misconduct in Chicago became so egregious that on January 31, 2019, a federal judge approved a court-enforceable consent decree with the City of Chicago, which mandated reform and federal oversight of the Chicago Police Department ("Chicago Police").

Police Planting Evidence

Numerous wrongful convictions were linked to former Chicago Police Sergeant Ronald Watts, who along with other officers in his tactical unit, was accused of planting drugs on citizens in the Ida B. Wells underserved projects.  In fact, Watts' extortion, bribes, and other crimes spanned from the late 1990's to 2012.  Kim Wilbourn was one of his victims.  On September 6, 2006, Wilbourn visited the Ida B. Wells housing projects to spend some time with family members.  As he was walking through the lobby, Watts and another officer detained him, handcuffed him, and searched him.  Watts did not find any contraband on Wilbourn but nonetheless proceeded to interrogate him.  He asked Wilbourn if he had information on who was selling drugs in the building.  Wilbourn responded that he was not a resident and was not aware of drugs being sold in the building.  Watts began viscously striking Wilbourn in the head with a closed fist while demanding answers to his questions.  Watts pressed Wilbourn about his brother, Vondell Wilbourn.  Watts had previously charged Vondell with drug possession in two separate incidents.  Vondell had always maintained his innocence even though he entered a guilty plea in both cases and was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison.  Watts persisted to aggressively question Kim about Vondell and other individuals.  After Kim again explained that he knew nothing, Watts gave him an ultimatum: If Kim did not produce information, drugs, or guns—he would be arrested.  Once again, Kim proclaimed that he had no information.  Watts responded by pulling out a sack with 25 individual baggies inside.  He told Kim he was in possession of the drugs and placed him under arrest.  Although Kim told everyone at the police station the drugs had been planted on him, his cries of innocence were utterly disregarded.  On October 17, 2006, Kim entered a guilty plea to possession of a controlled substance in Cook County Circuit Court.  He was given a two year prison sentence.  He was freed from custody on March 5, 2007.  On February 11, 2009, Kim's conviction was overturned and he was later given a certificate of innocence (Possley).

Kim Wilbourn is not alone in having his conviction at the corrupt hands of Watts vacated.  According to the Exoneration Project, which is a pro bono clinic that petitions courts to overturn wrongful convictions, cases involving Watts and his team of officers have led to at least 75 people's charges being dropped and 95 people's convictions being vacated since 2016 ("12 More Men").  Watts and his officers played roles in a minimum of 500 convictions ("12 More Men").  In 2012, Watts pled guilty to stealing money from an FBI informant who was posing as a homeless drug dealer ("12 More Men").  He confessed to regularly stealing money from drug dealers and ultimately received a 22-month federal prison sentence ("12 More Men").  Prosecutors alleged that Watts and his cohort of officers regularly planted drugs on innocent people and falsely arrested them to advance their own firearms and narcotics trafficking ("12 More Men").  Although Watts was not found to have abused arrested citizens to induce false confessions, many officers have engaged in such deplorable behavior. 

False Confessions From Police Torture 

False confessions are a problem in Illinois.  According to the National Registry of Exonerations, out of the 250 documented false confessions in the United States, 28% arise from Illinois ("Is Chicago Really").  Roughly 25% originate from Cook County ("Is Chicago Really").  Many false confessions are attributed to disgraced former Chicago police department detective and commander Jon Burge (Baker).  Between 1972-1991, Burge oversaw the torture of a minimum of 118 citizens of Chicago (Baker).  Burge and his officers referred to themselves as "The Midnight Crew, Burge's Ass Kickers, and the A-Team" (Baker).  They beat detainees, suffocated them, subjected them to mock executions with firearms, raped them with sex toys, used electroshock devices to shock their genitals, gums, fingers, and earlobes in an effort to extract false confessions (Baker).  Burge and his rogue police squad were mainly white men (Baker).  Their targets were black men from the South and West Sides of Chicago (Baker).  The officers nicknamed the electroshock devices they used to torture their victims, "nigger boxes" (Baker).  Anthony Holmes described the torture he suffered under Burge and his torture crew:

[Burge] put some handcuffs on my ankles, then he took one wire and put it on my ankles, he took the other wire and put it behind my back, on the handcuffs behind my back. Then after that, when he—then he went and got a plastic bag, put it over my head ... so I bit through it. So he went and got another bag and put it on my head and he twisted it. When he twisted it, it cut my air off and I started shaking. ... So then he hit me with the voltage. When he hit me with the voltage, that's when I started gritting, crying, hollering … It feel [sic] like a thousand needles going through my body. And then after that, it just feel [sic] like, you know—it feel [sic] like something just burning me from the inside, and, um, I shook, I gritted, I hollered, then I passed out. (Berlatsky)

More than a dozen convictions attributed to Jon Burge's torture unit were vacated ("Judge Denies New Trial").  In fact, in 2003, Governor George Ryan pardoned 4 death row inmates who accused Burge and his officers of torturing them into giving false confessions (Roberts).  Governor Ryan also commuted the death sentences of 167 people on death row and implemented a moratorium on the death penalty (Roberts).  In 2011, Illinois abolished the death penalty altogether (Roberts).  In 2016, Chicago paid settlements of $5.5 million to 57 torture victims who spent more than 20 years in prison based on their false confessions at the hands of Burge and his torture team (Roberts).  Altogether, Chicago, Cook County, and Illinois paid a total of $141, 466, 366 to Burge's torture victims ("Judge Denies New Trial").  Although Burge was fired in 1993 (he continued to collect his monthly $4,000 police pension until his death in 2018), abusive tactics by Chicago police to extract confessions from innocent suspects continued (Roberts).

Marquette Park Four

In 1995, when he was 16 years old, Chicago police stopped by Larod Styles' house to speak with him (Davis).  A double murder had occurred nearby, and one of the suspects implicated Styles (Davis).  Detectives took Styles to a police station where they handcuffed him to a wall and interrogated him for hours on end (Davis).  Styles initially denied involvement in the crime (Davis).  The detectives proceeded to yell at him, threaten him with life imprisonment, and tell him he would never see his loved ones again unless he signed some documents—and only then would he be allowed to return home to his grandmother (Davis).  Finally, at 1:00 am, after 8 hours of interrogation, Styles broke and confessed to a story he says was fed to him by detectives: He was involved in the double murder, which was a robbery gone wrong (Davis).  On January 15, 1998, Styles was convicted of robbery and first-degree murder based on his false confession even though there was no physical evidence linking him to the murders ("Larod Styles").  He received a life sentence without the possibility of parole ("Larod Styles"). That same year, three other teenagers were also convicted of the murders: Troshawn McCoy, LaShawn Ezell, and Charles Johnson ("Larod Styles").  They all claimed their confessions were coerced as well ("Larod Styles").  The four teenagers were named after the Chicago area where the crimes took place (Davis).  They were dubbed the “Marquette Park Four” (Davis).

In 2008, after serving 10 years in prison and losing his appeals, Charles Johnson sent a letter to the Center of Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, which partnered with lawyers at Kirkland & Ellis.  In 2009, a judge ordered fingerprints be retested from evidence in the case.  The fingerprints did not match any member of the Marquette Park Four and instead came back to four other individuals who had gang affiliations and criminal convictions.  Detectives also discovered that a convicted drug peddler had threatened to kill the two victims a day before the murders ("Larod Styles").

Astonishingly, 13 years earlier, in August 1996, Assistant State's Attorney Brian Sexton had the very same fingerprints in the case tested ("Larod Styles").  At the time, the results indicated the fingerprints did not belong to Styles, Johnson, McCoy, or Ezell ("Larod Styles").  Sexton incredulously never disclosed this information or the existence of the fingerprints to any of the defendants' attorneys even though he was aware of the exculpatory evidence 1 1/2 years before Styles' and Johnson's trials and more than 2 years before McCoy's and Ezell's trials ("Larod Styles").  In 2017, 19 years after their wrongful convictions, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx dismissed all charges against the defendants because the reinvestigated evidence was insufficient for a conviction (Davis).  The Marquette Park Four were subsequently given certificates of innocence by a judge (Davis).  During this period, police abuse of citizens became so pervasive in Chicago that it did not take long for the federal government to intervene.

Federal Oversight of Chicago Police 

In November 2015, a videotape was released showing Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke emptying his 9mm clip of 16 bullets in a span of 14-15 seconds into the lifeless body of 17-year old black teenager Laquan McDonald ("Laquan").  Van Dyke had 20 previously filed citizen complaints on him (he was never disciplined for any of them): 10 for excessive use of force, including two with the use of a gun and one for using a racial slur (Castillejo).  A Chicago man was awarded $350,000 after a jury found Van Dyke used excessive force on him during a traffic stop (McLaughlin).  The videotape of Laquan McDonald's murder at the hands of Van Dyke caused unrest and protests in Chicago, which prompted Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to ask the Justice Department to investigate the Chicago Police Department's (CPD) violation of the United States Constitution and federal civil rights law ("Chicago Police").  On December 7, 2015, United States Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch launched an investigation into the CPD's use of force against racial and ethnic minorities as well as into its procedures of accountability ("Chicago Police").  As part of the investigation, the department spoke with city leaders, past and current police officials, and many officers of different ranks throughout the CPD ("Justice Department").  The Justice Department rode along with officers more than 60 times in their patrol vehicles in every police district; spoke with over 1,000 residents and more than 90 local organizations; analyzed over 1,000 pages of police documents, including documents related to training, policies, and procedures; reviewed use of force reports from January 2011-April 2016, including over 170 police shootings and materials pertaining to over 400 different use of force incidents ("Justice department").

In 2017, the Justice Department found reasonable cause existed that the CPD displayed a pattern of using force and deadly force in a manner that violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The systematic behavior stemmed from a continuous lack of training, supervision, and accountability, including the lack of training in deescalation and not properly investigating, disciplining, or reporting use of force complaints.  Additionally, the department made it clear that racially bias police behavior was pervasive throughout the CPD.  This racist behavior was tolerated in the CPD and in some ways caused by weaknesses of the CPD's procedures for training, overseeing and holding police officers accountable.  The department went on to state that black and latino communities were most heavily impacted by the CPD's pattern of unreasonable use of force.  In order to reform the CPD, the department recommended Chicago sign a consent decree, which is a federal court-enforceable plan ("Justice Department").

In Spring 2017, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department under the Trump administration would not intervene in local police matters ("Chicago Police").  Thus, the department refused to enter into a consent decree with the City of Chicago to reform the CPD ("Chicago Police").  In August 2017, Illinois Attorney General Madigan sued the City of Chicago to obtain a consent decree that would implement the recommendations of the Justice Department ("Chicago Police").  The Attorney General's Office and the City of Chicago came together and agreed that a consent decree was necessary to reform the CPD and rebuild the trust of the citizens of Chicago ("Chicago Police").  Under the guidance of Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. and independent federal monitor Maggie Hickey, the consent decree went into effect on March 1, 2019: It requires the CPD to publicize use of force data every month, it bans police officers from using tasers on fleeing suspects, officers must document each time they pull out their weapons, the procedures for investigating officers have changed, and the city must strengthen its support of wellness programs for police officers ("Chicago Police").  On November 15, 2019, federal monitor Hickey released her first report on the CPD's progress in implementing the reforms of the consent decree: The report stated the CPD has not complied with most of the reforms and has failed to meet 37 of 50 mutually agreed upon deadlines to be in "preliminary compliance" (Schutz and Masterson).  Although the City of Chicago is currently under a consent decree, the state of Illinois must take further action to prevent wrongful convictions in Cook County and in other counties throughout the state.

Four Solutions to Prevent Wrongful Convictions

The State of Illinois should specifically focus on Cook County in implementing four critical steps to stem the problem of wrongful convictions: First, the law must mandate all police officers wear body cameras.  Second, public defender police station units across the state need to be created and adequately funded.  Third, elected, independent civilian oversight committees of police departments and state's attorney's offices have to be established.  Fourth, legislation should be passed to fund reputable organizations that investigate wrongful convictions in Illinois.

I. Body Cameras

Illinois state law must require all police officers to employ body cameras at all times.  Although some Illinois police departments utilize body cameras, there is still a large percentage of police officers on the streets who are not required to wear them.  Body cameras can play a vital role in warding off illegal police conduct and foul play.  For example, it would be significantly more difficult for a police officer to plant drugs on an innocent person while a body camera recorded his every action.  Police officers found to have intentionally turned off their body cameras should be suspended immediately.  Body cameras would also offer unbiased evidence on what events transpired during any given period of time, which in turn would foster truth and make it harder for police officers to fabricate police reports.

II. Public Defender Police Station Units

The Illinois legislature needs to fund statewide public defender programs that enable public defenders to appear at police stations at any time of the day to represent arrestees.  When people falsely confess to crimes, they confess outside the presence of an attorney.  Having an attorney present when a person is arrested and taken to a police station would significantly reduce false confessions.  Attorneys at police stations would also prevent police officers from employing coercive tactics to extract false confessions.  Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli created a public defender police station unit in Cook County, which as of last year, has resulted in 100 people being released from police custody with dropped charges (Smith).  However, the program needs more funding from officials to more effectively serve citizens (Smith).

III. Elected, Independent Civilian Oversight Committees

The Illinois General Assembly has to establish and maintain entirely elected, independent civilian oversight committees tasked with monitoring, investigating, and disciplining wrongdoing of members of police departments and state's attorney's offices across the state. 

A.  Elected Civilian Oversight Committees of Police Departments 

Elected, independent civilian oversight of police departments is crucial in holding police officers accountable for their actions.  Typically, when a complaint is filed against a police officer, the officer's police department is the only entity investigating the complaint.  A police department cannot be trusted to properly and impartially investigate a complaint against one of its own.  Time and time again, police departments conduct internal investigations of wrongdoing of their officers and ultimately conclude the officer acted appropriately no matter how egregious his or her actions.  Even when police departments do find wrongdoing by their officers, the punishment is often a slap on the wrist.  This occurs if police departments actually allow citizens to file complaints in the first place.  Although citizens have a right to file complaints against police officers, it is not unusual for citizens to be turned away from police departments or intimidated into leaving without filing a complaint.  Elected, independent civilian oversight committees of police departments must be created to protect the rights of Illinois citizens.

Although Chicago has a Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) that was created in 2016 to oversee misconduct by the Chicago Police Department, its members and leaders are appointed by the mayor, not elected by the people (Masterson).  As a result, COPA has been criticized for not holding police officers accountable for their actions (Mitchell).  In fact, in 2019, nine Chicago aldermen were calling for an investigation of COPA because it "internalized bias in favor of protecting Chicago police officers who [were] accused of misconduct" (Mitchell).  The aldermen questioned both the "effectiveness" and "leadership" of COPA Chief Administrator Sydney Roberts (Mitchell).  Roberts was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Mitchell).  She spent most of her career in law enforcement and also served as director of the Illinois Secretary of State's Police Department (Mitchell).  Someone with a career in law enforcement who was appointed by a mayor cannot be trusted as Chief Administrator of a police oversight committee to effectively discipline police officers accused of wrongdoing.  Illinois must create independent civilian oversight committees whose leaders and members are fully elected by the people, not appointed by the mayor.

B.  Elected Civilian Oversight Committees of State's Attorney's Offices 

As chief law enforcement officers, state's attorneys are given sole and unfettered discretion to decide whether or not to prosecute a crime and what crime to charge.  They are also elected by the people.  As a result, many prosecutors are overzealous in charging and convicting defendants of crimes regardless of guilt in order to portray themselves as "tough on crime."  As the saying goes: "No one ever lost an election for being too tough on crime."  In some cases, prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys or even knowingly use fabricated evidence against innocent defendants.  On other occasions, prosecutors are accused of working with law enforcement to seize the assets of innocent people all the while threatening them with prosecution of a crime to essentially extort them into not challenging the seizure of their assets in exchange for not being prosecuted.  In fact, law enforcement agencies seize more than $30 million a year from Illinoisans under state law and more than $36 million a year under federal law (Ruddell and Green).  Assets seized under state law are used to fund state's attorney's offices and law enforcement agencies across the state (Ruddell and Green).  These seizures have an inordinate effect on poor and minority communities (Ruddell).  Those who contest the taking of their assets are often criminally prosecuted.  In other instances, prosecutors are accused of pursuing convictions against defendants in retaliation for civil lawsuits filed against them or simply because they have biases against particular defendants.  Elected, independent civilian oversight of state's attorney's offices would help rein in abusive practices by prosecutors.

IV. Funding of Exoneration Organizations 

Illinois should finance well-respected organizations that advocate on behalf of innocent people facing charges or serving time in Illinois prisons.  Exoneration organizations have limited resources; as a result, they cannot spend the time, money, and effort needed to adequately assist every innocent person.  State funding would greatly enhance their ability to aid the unjustly accused.  Although the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has an “integrity unit” that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions in Cook County, other counties in Illinois have no such integrity units.  Furthermore, although an integrity unit is an “independent” division of a state’s attorney’s office, it is still part of a state's attorney’s office and is thus susceptible to bias and not investigating claims of innocence as robustly as an independent organization.  In fact, most integrity units are run by prosecutors who are essentially being asked to investigate their coworkers and bosses (Rice).  Ohio Innocence Project Advisor Jim Locke puts it this way: “Conviction review units are totally contained within the office, and the prosecutor has total control over which case he’ll review and which ones he won’t.  My personal opinion is that CRUs are politically motivated and self-serving.  It’s the fox guarding the henhouse problem. They’ll cherry-pick the cases, overturn the obviously worst ones, thump their chests about all the good being done" (Rice).  Exoneration organizations, on the other hand, are completely independent of state's attorney's offices and would therefore be more reliable and effective in investigating claims of innocence.

Works Cited

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Castillejo, Esther. "Some of the Past Complaints Against Chicago Cop Charged in Teen's Slaying." ABC News, Nov. 25, 2015, https://abcnews.go.com/US/past-complaints-chicago-cop-charged-teens-slaying/story?id=35415122.

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Davis, Kevin. "The Chicago police legacy of extracting false confessions is costing the city millions." ABA Journal, July 1, 2018, https://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/chicago_police_false_confessions.

"Judge Denies New Trial To Man Who Claims He Was Tortured By Jon Burge's Detectives." CBS Chicago, Jan. 16, 2020, https://chicago.cbslocal.com/2020/01/16/george-anderson-confession-jon-burge-no-new-trial.

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Masterson, Matt. "Chicago Aldermen Renews Push For Elected Police Oversight Council." WTTW News, May 14, 2019, https://news.wttw.com/2019/05/14/chicago-alderman-renews-push-elected-police-oversight-council.

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Possley, Maurice. "Kim Wilbourn." The National Registry of Exonerations, Sept. 10, 2019, https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=5516.

---. "Larod Styles." The National Registry of Exonerations, May 13, 2018, https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=5101.

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Ruddell, Ben and Bryant Jackson-Green. "Asset Forfeiture in Illinois: What it is, where it happens, and reforms the state needs." Illinois Policy, https://www.illinoispolicy.org/reports/asset-forfeiture-in-illinois.

Ruddell, Ben. "Illinois Has a New Civil Asset Forfeiture Law. But Will It Stop "Policing For Profit?'" ACLU Illinois, August 15, 2018, https://www.aclu-il.org/en/news/illinois-has-new-civil-asset-     forfeiture-law-will-it-stop-policing-profit.

Schutz, Paris and Matt Masterson. "Federal Monitor: CPD Lagging Behind in Consent Decree Compliance." WTTW News, Nov. 15, 2019, https://news.wttw.com/2019/11/15/federal-monitor-cpd-lagging-behind-consent-decree-compliance.

Smith, Patrick. "Cook County Public Defender Wants More Lawyers In Police Stations." WBEZ News, Oct. 29, 2019, https://www.wbez.org/shows/wbez-news/cook-county-public-defender-wants-more-  lawyers-in-police-stations/88d39655-dd6e-4203-abcb-bd863dc3f504.


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